by BEN NORTON
The U.K. has voted to leave the European Union, and things have been thrown into disarray. Amid the chaos, many have blamed the unexpected vote on racism and bigotry.
There is no question that xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments were strong drivers behind Brexit, the British vote to leave the E.U. But describing the vote solely as a racist phenomenon, as some media outlets and politicians have, is an oversimplification. It ignores how economic crisis, fueled by neoliberal policies, has inflamed this racism.
It is misleading to pit a racist explanation of the Brexit vote against an economic explanation and say only one is correct. Rather, both factors were closely tied together, and heavily influenced each other.
There is no question that Brexit was a victory for the far-right, in both the U.K. and in the rest of Europe. It has inspired far-right parties throughout the continent to call for their own referendum votes, a truly troubling development that could help strengthen dangerous neo-fascist movements.
But in order to know how to push back against these far-right, nationalist, racist forces, one must understand how they attract working-class voters by exploiting real economic problems.
Supporters of Brexit made a lot of empty promises. Advocates not only claimed leaving the E.U. would allow Britain to slow down immigration; they also insisted it would give the country more resources to fund social services and would strengthen the economy.
These latter promises were very popular. For the average Briton — and European in general — things are not going well economically. Recovery after the 2008 financial crash has been lackluster, and countries have continuously imposed austerity measures that slash social spending and reduce government services.
While the public sector is being gutted, wage growth in the U.K. is sluggish, and poverty — especially child poverty — is on the rise. As The Guardian put it, “Poverty in the UK is increasing after two years of heavy welfare cuts have helped to push hundreds of thousands of people below the breadline.”
It’s no coincidence that the Brexit vote comes in the same week that newspaper headlines read “UK poverty levels rise for first time in nearly a decade.” Things are getting worse, not better, and everyone recognizes it. They want change, but have few options to choose from.
Right-wing proponents of the Leave campaign, like the far-right throughout the world, have taken advantage of the widespread anger at these growing economic problems and directed that rage at migrants, outsiders and multiculturalism, instead of at the neoliberal policies that have fueled them.
Meanwhile, for years, both mainstream parties in the U.K., the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, have adopted neoliberal economics — that is to say, hyper-capitalist policies like privatization, deregulation and cuts in public spending, policies that shrink the state and give more power to corporations in its place.
Even the U.S. government, which has been implementing its own neoliberal policies for years, urged the E.U. this week to “ease off on austerity.”
“It would be wise from the perspective of job growth and economic growth more generally to ease off on austerity,” a U.S. official said, indirectly admitting that E.U.-imposed neoliberalism has fueled support for Brexit.
The International Monetary Fund — the leading international evangelist of neoliberalism, an institution that has forced countries throughout the world, particularly those in the Global South, to adopt neoliberal “structural adjustment” programs — recently admitted in a study that neoliberalism is “oversold.”
IMF economists concluded that neoliberal policies, like those that have been implemented by the U.K., have increased inequality, which in turn hurts long-term growth and stability in the economy.
The “evidence of the economic damage from inequality suggests that policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are,” researchers said, noting that, in some cases, the consequences “will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income.”
“Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded,” the IMF economists added, acknowledging that taxing the rich and boosting government spending will not necessarily hurt growth.
The E.U. itself, like the IMF with which it closely works, has for many years forced neoliberal policies onto member states like Greece, which is suffocating in economic turmoil and bleeding from austerity.
The British left, however, did not articulate alternatives to E.U. neoliberalism. It missed the opportunity, leaving a political opening that the far-right took advantage of, by blaming immigration and bureaucracy. There certainly are many left-wing critiques to be made of the E.U., but the Brexit campaign was dominated by not just the right, but by the far-right.
Before the Brexit vote, right-wing media outlets ran stories with hyperbolic headlines like, “Population to surge by four million due to mass immigration that will ‘change the face of England forever.'” But these exaggerated stories did not just employ racist arguments about a supposed cultural threat; they used economic arguments to instill fear within tax-payers.
“The Vote Leave campaign is expected to have a renewed focus on the impact of migration on public services,” wrote right-wing newspaper The Telegraph. It cited Conservative pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling, who warned that migrants’ “additional demand for housing will gobble up vast tracts of green belt land.”
It then followed up with a quote from Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of the right-wing group Migration Watch UK, who said, “The country is already facing a housing crisis and there is huge pressure on GP [National Health Service general practitioner] services. Meanwhile there is projected to be a shortfall in primary school places in the very near future.”
These problems — the housing crisis and growing cost of rent, the lack of funding for the National Health Service and the budget shortfalls for primary schools — are all direct results of neoliberal economic policies. But instead of blaming the government’s austerity measures, Brexit supporters exploited the very real economic problems endured by average Britons and scapegoated migrants.
One of the most popular talking points of the pro-Leave campaign, in fact, was that, by leaving the E.U., Britain could supposedly provide more funding to its National Health Service, or NHS, the U.K.’s system of socialized health care, which is very popular across the population.
This, not just anti-immigrant sentiments, was one of the main selling points of Brexit advocates. Boris Johnson, the right-wing former London mayor who spearheaded Brexit, campaigned heavily on the promise that the millions in tax dollars the U.K. sends to the E.U. every week would instead go to funding the NHS. He even toured the country in a bus with this promise emblazoned on it.
This strategy was odd from the get-go, given that many of the right-wing leaders who backed Brexit in reality support privatization and other neoliberal economic policies themselves, but they cynically exploited the popularity of social services like the NHS for political gain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, mere hours after the successful Brexit vote, these leaders began to walk back on their promises, claiming they were misunderstood. But their strategy was clearly remarkably effective at attracting voters.
Trump and trade
Far-right Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is pursuing a similar strategy in the U.S. This is partially what explains his tremendous popularity among some segments of the population.
Donald Trump exploits racist myths and stereotypes to instill fear in working-class Americans who have genuine economic problems. He displaces the blame for these economic problems onto migrants, and promises that he can return the U.S. to a time when life was not so hard.
Trump does this while he makes very legitimate critiques of neoliberal trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which have benefited multinational corporations at the expense of average working-class citizens.
TPP, a global neoliberal trade pact that was written in secret with the input of powerful corporations, but without the input of the citizens who will actually be impacted it, has been described as “a gift to corporations” and “NAFTA on steroids.” Labor groups and unions warn it will undermine workers’ rights and lead to further outsourcing of jobs, destroying local economies as corporations find cheaper labor to exploit — not to mention how it will threaten Medicare and jeopardize the environment.
The fact that the Democratic president, Barack Obama, has staunchly pushed for TPP has alienated large segments of the working class, as have the overall neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party, which embraces privatization and austerity.
On trade, then, Trump is running to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party. He uses this position, in conjunction with his scapegoating of immigrants and even non-migrant Americans of color for economic problems caused by neoliberalism, to stir up popular support.
Far-right demagogues like Trumps capitalize on rightful anger at big business and pro-corporate trade policies and steer it in a hyper-nationalist, ultra-reactionary direction. They do this even when they themselves are economic elites.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, is a former commodities trader who worked on Wall Street. And Trump is one of the richest people on the planet. Yet their supporters understand how economic elites are exploiting them.
“If you’ve got money, you vote in”
“If you’ve got money, you vote in,” a Brexit supporter told The Guardian’s John Harris. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.”
Harris traveled through economically depressed rural areas of the U.K., interviewing working-class voters, many of whom formerly voted Labour, but were turned off by its embrace of pro-corporate neoliberal policies under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and now vote UKIP.
“This is about so much more than the European Union. It is about class, and inequality, and a politics now so professionalised that it has left most people staring at the rituals of Westminster [the site of the U.K. Parliament] with a mixture of anger and bafflement,” he explained.
Person after person told Harris the same thing: They were voting out, and not just because of immigration, but because of outsourcing, a diminishing standard of living, unemployment, dwindling social services and ...